Try out accommodation, rescind it if necessary

Disabled employees are entitled to reasonable accommodations that allow them to perform the essential functions of their jobs. If those accommodations turn out to be unreasonable—that is, they prove to be an undue burden on the employer—then they can be withdrawn.

What it means: There’s no harm in trying an accommodation.

Recent case: Donna Hofler worked for a nonprofit organization that provides homeless and domestic violence services in the community. She has cerebral palsy and for years used crutches to help her walk. Her job included training and supervising volunteers for the program, monitoring cleaning and maintenance, and making sure food packages were ready for clients who needed them.

All went well for many years until Hofler fell and had to start using a wheelchair.

Her employer then allowed the volunteers Hofler supervised to help her with tasks she could no longer do easily, such as cleaning and going to the pantry to assemble food packages.

After a while, it became obvious that volunteers weren’t always available. They were, after all, volunteers and the nonprofit had limited power over them. That’s when Hofler was transferred to another position.

Hofler sued, alleging she should have been allowed to continue to use volunteers as a reasonable accommodation. She claimed that the company had already agreed that this was a reasonable accommodation.

The court disagreed. It said employers that try accommodations aren’t stuck with them if they turn out to be unreasonable. (Hofler v. Family of Woodstock, No. 07-CV-1055, ND NY, 2009)

Final note: The court did allow one of Hofler’s claims to go forward. The nonprofit had argued it had to cut Hofler’s hours because she was a danger to herself and therefore could work only with a volunteer. The court didn’t buy that argument.